Agenda 2004: A Guide to the Issues
The population growth and expansion of metro Atlanta has earned the region the title of “sprawl capital of the world,” a negative connotation. Yet if sprawl is defined as the spread of urban land uses into the surrounding countryside over time, then two factors account for the urban area’s expansion: population growth and growth in per capita land use (in other words, the amount of land used for each person’s residential, commercial and transportation needs). The relative contributions of Georgia’s population growth and the amount of land used per person must be understood if development is to be dealt with effectively.
This increase in population and land use has become an important public policy issue primarily because of concerns about its impact on traffic, air quality and water quality and quantity. As a result, there is vigorous debate surrounding the challenges.
Not only do people prefer to choose the level of density they live in, data show that high density is associated with the damaging environmental impacts that opponents of growth fear, in the form of air and water pollution. For example, the chart above shows the relationship between higher densities and worse smog ratings. A market approach, with government oversight, provides a better method of protecting Georgia’s environment while preserving an individual’s ability to choose where to live.
Georgia’s population has risen dramatically over the past 70 years; by 2003, census estimates were that the metro Atlanta region was drawing 500 new residents daily. At the same time, the per-capita income of Georgia’s citizens has increased from less than half of the national average to nearly equal to the national average of $30,832. Preliminary data for 2002 ranks Georgia 29th in the nation for per-capita personal income ($28,703).
A study of the country’s 100 largest urban areas released in 2003 concluded that nationally, population growth accounted for 52 percent of the loss of rural land between 1982 and 1997, while increases in per capita land consumption accounted for 48 percent. The study was based on data from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. However, there is considerable variation among different regions of the country, states and cities.
In Georgia, likewise, the respective roles of population growth and per capita land use or declining density vary greatly from city to city. So does the analysis of land use, an important consideration in a state housing the “poster child for sprawl,” metro Atlanta. For example, while the Heinz Center, using USGS satellite data, estimates the total developed land area of Georgia at 2.9 percent in 1992 (the most recent data available), the Census Bureau’s estimate was 8.2 percent and the National Resources Inventory put the total at 10.5 percent in 1997.
The Gap Analysis of Georgia released in May 2004 analyses biodiversity. It reports that 71 percent of Georgia is presently in a forested condition. The most common forest types were pine, most of which are only in a semi-natural state. It also found that wetlands make up 12 percent of Georgia’s land cover; agricultural or pasture areas cover 20 percent and urban development may be found on 3 percent of the land area, a figure that has nearly doubled since 1974.
The USGS National Land Cover Characterization 2001 project is scheduled for completion in 2004, and is likely to help update and clarify these questionable figures regarding Georgia and metro Atlanta land use.
Source: Georgia Gap Analysis
From 1997 to 2002, Georgia’s number of farms declined by 32, from 49,343 farms to 49,311 farms, according the 2002 Census of Agriculture released in June 2004. Land in farms decreased 441,781 acres, from 11,262,838 acres to 10,821,057 acres, a decline of 5 percent. Part of this decline, however, may be attributed to the economic impact of the debilitating three-year drought that struck Georgia during this period rather than the demands of urbanization and development in the state.
Source: USDA Census of Agriculture State Profile, Georgia
Nationwide, according to the preliminary census data, the number of U.S. farms declined 3.9 percent (by 86,884 farms) and land in farms decreased 1.6 percent between 1997 and 2002 (by 15,473,446 acres).
The rate of decline in Georgia farmland between 1997 and 2002, even when the 1997 Census of Agriculture is reweighted for undercoverage, is the lowest reported in 24 years. Overall, since 1974, Georgia has seen a 10 percent decline in the total number of farms, (54,911 farms in 1974 to 49,311 in 2002). Farm acreage shrank 22 percent during that period. However, while farm acres are shrinking, technological advances including equipment, irrigation and best management practices continue to improve production on farms.
Additionally, thanks to wetland conversion and conservation programs in agriculture, the rate of wetland decline has decreased in recent decades. Through the Wetland Reserve Program, agriculture has become the single largest source of U.S. wetland restoration.
Despite declines in farmland and farmers, agricultural exports have increased across the board since 1974. For example, Georgia went from zero exports of tree nuts in 1974 to $18.6 million in 2002; from $19.1 million in exports of cotton and linters in 1974 to $218.6 million in 2002; from $32.2 million in peanuts in 1973 to $102.1 million in 2002; from $8 million in poultry and products to $263.8 million in 2002. Overall, Georgia’s estimated agricultural exports grew from $296.5 million in 1974 to $1.01 billion in 2002.
In Georgia’s metropolitan areas, a combination of population growth and a high tax burden on farm owners has helped lead to a decline in metropolitan-area farm acreage. Not only is there a demand for large tracts for residential and commercial development, but encroaching neighborhoods often view as a nuisance existing farms’ daily activities, from early rising to noisy tractors and chickens and smelly fertilizers.
According to the National Resource Inventory (NRI), from 1992 to 1997 about 3.2 million acres (one in four acres) converted to urban use in Georgia was prime farmland. For that same period, the Census of Agriculture reports that total land in farms increased 645,665 acres: a 6.4 percent increase, from 10,025,581 acres to 10,671,246 acres. The NRI estimates that the state converts 37,000 acres of prime farmland to urban use annually.
Policy-makers would do well to consider the consequences of restricting or overregulating such conversions in an attempt to preserve rural lands or green space in urban areas, because they have great potential in urban settings: A mixed-use development in Fayetteville, the Villages of Lafayette, is able to take shape just off the city’s courthouse square, thanks to the flexibility provided by the purchase of a 110-acre farm tract.
In 1910, there were 293,000 farms in Georgia. The number peaked at 311,000 in 1920 but was back to 292,000 in 1928, steadily declining to 255,000 by 1943. Except for some post-World War II fluctuation, Georgia experienced an 83 percent decline in the number of farms from 1910-1999. Today, there are 49,311 farms in Georgia.
Historically, the greatest decline in farmland (38 percent) occurred during the immediate post-World War II era (1950-1969). From 1969-1997, there was a 32 percent loss in farmland. The greatest loss in the number of farms also occurred prior to 1969. After 1969, the decline in farms has been steady, but not as significant as in the first half of the last 50 years.
Preliminary data for 2002 cropland and harvested cropland have not been released, but it is clear that while Georgia may be converting farmland, the change is not harming farms or agricultural output. According to the 1997 Census of Agriculture (not adjusted for coverage), the number of Georgia farms with harvested cropland decreased nearly 8 percent from 1992-1997, but the acres of harvested cropland increased nearly 13 percent. Census data released for 2002 found that total land in farms has decreased 5 percent to 10,744,239 acres in 2002 from 11,262,838 acres in 1997.
From 1964 to 1997, although the number of farms declined 61 percent and the number of farms with cropland declined 55 percent, Georgia’s acres of harvested cropland declined just 4.75 percent and total cropland acreage declined 15.6 percent.
The best reason given for the impressive performance of Georgia’s harvested cropland is that farmers have the ability to determine what lands to plant and when to plant. Through the use of better science and new technology, farmers harvest more acreage than in the past while marginal foodstuffs are seeing alternative uses than just for food (such as oils, fuels, etc.). Such individual decisions are difficult to regulate with a top-down land use management plan.
Excessive regulations also make it difficult for the small family farmer to remain in business. When overzealous policy-makers impose burdensome environmental or labor mandates on small farms, the small farmer rarely has the capital to make the requisite changes. Such regulations place the small farmer at a competitive disadvantage with the larger producer who captures the economies of scale to pay for the cost of new regulations.
The loss of farms and farmland is due in large measure to changes within the agricultural marketplace, not development. Farms have grown larger: The average farm size in 2002 was 220 acres, compared with 215 acres 40 years ago. Farmers are becoming more efficient in producing and harvesting crops. In fact, the agricultural prices for commodities reflect this efficiency when prices are at their lowest and we are drowning in agricultural products.
Federal tax reform is expected to reduce the number of taxable farm estates by nearly 50 percent and total taxes paid are expected to drop by about one-third, which will encourage more farmers to stay in the business as it reduces the need to sell farms to developers. However, the provisions are temporary and set to return to pre-2001 levels in 2011 unless Congress makes them permanent.
If we are not losing such large tracts of farmland that threaten our agricultural viability, then it must be our forestland, right? Wrong. Despite forest loss to development and urbanization, the amount of timberland across Georgia has remained fairly stable for the past 70 years, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission.
About 66 percent of Georgia’s land is covered in forests: 24.49 million acres. Georgia’s 23.9 million acres of commercial forest land gives it more than any other state. In fact, forest acreage actually increased by about 200,000 acres from 1998 to 2003. Most of this increase is due to conversion of agricultural lands by tree planting and natural seeding. On average, nearly 600,000 trees a day were planted in Georgia in 2001. In essence, the state has gained forestland at a time of rapid population increase.
Is this thanks to government? More than 90 percent of the forested acreage in Georgia is privately owned (600,000 individual owners own 72 percent of the state’s forests; 20 percent is owned by corporations) and 8 percent is owned by government. A 2002 survey across all forest ownerships found 99.1 percent compliance with best management practices, the voluntary guidelines that ensure water quality is protected during forestry operations. In 2003, the Georgia Forestry Commission reached the million-acre mark in its Forest Stewardship Program, in which landowners work with a team of foresters, soil scientists, wildlife biologists and recreation specialists to promote a comprehensive forest management plan with multiple benefits, from timber and wildlife to recreation and aesthetics.
Sound forest conservation has been practiced in Georgia for years; with the state setting a world record in 1988 for regenerating 603,000 acres. More than 3 billion trees have been replanted over the last decade. About 1.78 trees are planted for every one harvested to ensure that future forests continue to support the economy and environment.An estimated 80,000 acres of forestland are naturally regenerated each year. The state is known for its pine plantations, but while 44 percent of the timberland is pine, 55 percent is hardwood such as oak, maple, yellow poplar and sweetgum. Hardwoods, generally slower growing species, are considered more vulnerable to land use changes.
Georgia’s forests pay for themselves and provide a rural quality of life for many state residents. The forest industry is a major player in the state’s economy, and timber is Georgia’s “top crop,” ahead of cotton, peanuts and vegetables: Timber comprised 6.4 percent of Georgia’s agricultural commodities in 2002. Forestry has a total annual economic impact of $30.5 billion on the state. In 2002, the forestry industry employed 70,715 in all forestry industry sectors combined, paid an annual income of over $3.2 billion, and supported total sales revenue of over $16.1 billion.
According to the 1997 inventory of forests, although land change took place on 2 million acres, 929,000 diverted acres were offset by 1.1 million acres added to the timberland base.
To put this in perspective, timberland increased 6 percent on private lands to 17.1 million acres.
Overall, Georgia’s loss in farmland is moderating, with harvested cropland virtually unchanged over the last 20 years. Forestland is also healthy and remains diverse with very little forestland converted to urban-related land uses. Policies designed to protect and conserve forests and farmland must be crafted in recognition of the positive, marketwise strides made in land conservation: Business-minded landowners realize that the better the care of the land, the more productive it is remains in the long term.
Agriculture and forestland purchases made by government should not be based on emotion, but sound science and recognition of incentives that exist now to protect our natural resources.
Utilize zoning that is oriented toward land use rather than classification.
Performance zoning describes the intensity of land use rather than the purpose for which land is used (prescriptive zoning). This concept allows planners to develop fewer, broader zoning districts. Performance zoning measures such things as residential densities, the amount of impervious surface layer, height and bulk of structures in the district, etc. From these calculations, planners might recommend stronger buffering between some land uses than others based on intensity of use.
More flexible zoning would also allow for innovative practices such as conservation subdivisions, mixed-use developments, and multi-family options such as “granny flats.” Conservation subdivisions allow developers to increase the density of one portion of a development in order to protect sensitive areas such as near stream buffers, create more green space and preserve more open space. The overall density level must still meet current zoning standards, but the added flexibility encourages environmentally rewarding, innovative designs. By reducing and streamlining zoning, policy-makers can reduce costly, bureaucratic delays that make developers think twice about experimenting; they can shift the land-use choices closer to the community instead of top-down dictates that create an us-vs.-them mindset.
Additionally, given the spiraling cost of land in the metro Atlanta region, zoning and development regulations can hinder developers’ efforts to provide affordable housing options. An Audit for the Quality Growth Task Force of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce found that about half the jurisdictions in metro Atlanta set a maximum residential density of eight units to the acre.
Eliminate subsidies to developers
“Discounting” infrastructure costs to developers (average pricing) can encourage shortcuts and haphazard design in development. By eliminating subsidies, policy-makers will eliminate some of the incentives that have encouraged irresponsible development practices. When developers connect to water and sewer, they should pay the full cost of doing so. Likewise, when a proposed development will impact traffic and changes are necessary such as new roads, intersections and traffic lights, the cost must be borne by the developer, either through direct payment or full-cost pricing, in which government charges the developer the full cost (including debt service) of the infrastructure investment.
Subsidizing in-fill development is also a no-no: It harms the subdivision developer who chooses to satisfy the suburban marketplace.
Utilize market-oriented user fees to equitably assign the cost of environmental impacts to those causing the greatest harm.
While there is still plenty of space left to physically accommodate more people in Georgia, there are many concerns about the impact that haphazard development can exert on the environment. Air quality and water quality and quantity, along with traffic congestion, have been the greatest concern for a growing Georgia. The perception of harm wrought by urbanization – more specifically, suburbanization – threatens to constrain Georgia’s economic growth.
In addition to human impacts such as traffic congestion, urbanization’s impact on the environment can lead to reduced tree cover in certain areas, with increases in impervious surface leading to heat islands and affecting air and water quality.
With the increase in per capita income comes the expectation of an enhanced environment and quality of life. As Georgians earn more, they “move up” and increasingly have the ability to pay for their rising expectations. Regulations that force developers to increase density to undesirable or unmarketable levels or enact poorly designed impact fees are unnecessary. Instead, policy-makers could adopt market approaches such as user fees that equitably assign the cost of Georgians’ lifestyle choices and decisions. (See the chapter on Water for an example of this approach.)
Encourage farmland and open space protection through private land trusts and conservation easements.
The Land Trust Alliance credits local land trusts with protecting more than 6.2 million acres across the nation; an area roughly twice the size of Connecticut. Another 500,000 acres are being protected on average every year, according to the alliance. From 1990-2000, the acreage protected increased 226 percent and the number of local and regional land trusts grew by 42 percent to 1,263. Forty-six percent of these land trusts have protected farmland acreage.
The Georgia Land Trust Service Center works to increase the effectiveness of land trusts and helps land owners protect conservation lands in Georgia and the Southeast. In a July 2002 survey of land trusts, respondents reported owning 9,358 acres in fee simple and 45,352 acres in conservation easements. The total does not include lands pre-acquired for federal, state and local governments (e.g., Wassaw and Ossabaw islands acquired by the Nature Conservancy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources respectively).
Purchase of agricultural conservation easement (PACE) programs compensate property owners for restricting the future use of their land. PACE is also known as Purchase of Development Rights (PDR). When a landowner sells property, generally all the rights are transferred to the buyer. PACE programs enable landowners to separate and sell their right to develop land from their other property rights. For example, the landowner might agree to prohibit any structures, roads or clearcutting on a parcel in order to protect wildlife habitat. Or he might restrict land disturbance and chemical application within a river or lakeshore buffer zone, or restrict dredging in a wetland. Conservation easements have also been used to protect historic sites, especially battlefields. The buyer, whether a government agency or nonprofit conservation group, acquires the right and responsibility to prevent development.
Typically, conservation easements “run with the land,” binding all future owners unless a provision exists to terminate for cause or at the end of a specified period. However, a downside is that federal tax benefits are available only for perpetual easements, which subject all future landowners to the easement restrictions. IRS flexibility on the perpetuity clause (allowing a 50-year easement, for example) would make conservation easements more palatable to more landowners.
Through the federal Farmland Protection Program, which requires state or local matching dollars, Georgia received $1.095 million in 2002 to purchase development rights on three sites, in Carroll, Madison and Walker counties and protected 467 acres. For fiscal 2004, Georgia’s allocation is $1,231,800.
However, several private land trusts operate successfully without the need for taxpayer dollars, and even local communities have met with tremendous success in protecting farmland through private means. The private Lancaster Farmland Trust, established 16 years ago in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, has been favored by the Amish and Mennonite community, which shuns government programs and taxpayer funds. So far, the Trust has protected 178 farms and 11,070 farmland acres. The private non-profit preserved 18 farms in 2003, spending an average of only $306 per acre to permanently preserve 838 acres. (The average appraised value of development rights per acre in Lancaster County is $2,800.)
By comparison, the Lancaster County Agricultural Preserve Board is a county department that reports preserving 43,000 acres on 490 farms since 1983. However, it has done so at much greater cost and with the use of taxpayer dollars from the county, the commonwealth and the federal government. The board has a budget of approximately $8 million per year with which to purchase farms. Highlighting one risk of using public funds, the Lancaster Sunday News noted in March 2004, “Only $7.7 million of commissioners’ $25-million bond issue to preserve farmland was spent on farms. The rest went to pay other bills.”
Another intriguing private program that is enormously successful is the Colorado Cattleman’s Association Land Trust (CCALT). It prides itself as being “a land trust OF landowners, BY landowners, and FOR landowners.” Established in 1995 as part of a ranchers’ organization, the trust focuses on educating farmers and ranchers about the use of conservation easements, both to protect land and to promote intergenerational transfers of farmland. The trust has protected more than 116,500 productive acres since 2001.
State and county agricultural organizations, in establishing their own land trusts, can increase the value of membership and connect older farmers with younger farmers, thereby creating agricultural longevity.
Finally, since 1980, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (established in Marin County, California), the first agricultural land trust in the nation, has protected 35,000 acres of land on 53 family farms and ranchland in the county.
Land preservation programs that reflect market incentives and public-private relationships work best.
Conservation easements can be particularly effective in protecting water quality. As opposed to the many problems associated with mandatory riparian buffer regulations or the high cost of purchased riparian buffer strips, voluntary conservation easements can protect water quality while maintaining private ownership.
Encourage Congress to eliminate the estate tax.
Based on the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, the federal estate tax exemption, (at $675,000 in 2001 and $1.5 million in 2003) continues to increase each year to $3.5 million until 2009, then the tax will be repealed in 2010. But if Congress does not act to make the exemption permanent, it will sunset with the act at the end of that year, returning estate taxes to pre-2001 levels in 2011.
The tax is another contributor to the loss in agricultural land. Research estimates that hundreds of thousands of acres have been lost due to the egregiousness of the “death tax,” which often forces the widows or children of farmers to sell their land to developers in order to raise the funds to pay their estate tax bill.
In addition to encouraging the sale of farmland (including forestland), the estate tax can also indirectly harm the environment by causing an estate faced with a substantial tax bill to harvest timber indiscriminately or divide the property into parcels, fragmenting the landscape and long-term forest management plans.
Timber and agricultural land pay about $1.04 -$2.66 in taxes for every dollar received in services, according to a “cost of community” study by the University of Georgia.While residential developments generate more taxes for a community/local government, their demand for services is also much higher. Government must take care not to tax farmland/timberland out of existence, eliminating the very greenspace communities are demanding.
 U.S. Census Bureau, www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/population/001703.html
 Georgia Forestry Association www.gfagrow.org/facts.htm
 Clearcut is defined as “Recent clearcuts, sparse vegetation and other early successional areas” by the Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Laboratory (NARSAL)
 U.S. General Services Administration Table,www.blm.gov/natacq/pls00/pdf/part1-3.pdf
 R. Harold Brown, The Greening of Georgia, p. 56
 Georgia State Fact Sheet from USDA/ERS www.ers.usda/statefacts/GA.htm
 Effects of Federal Tax Policy on Agriculture, AER-800, Economic Research Service, USDA, www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer800/aer800.pdf
 “Taxing Forests to Death,” by Pam Villarreal, National Center for Policy Analysis, www.ncpa.org/pub/ba/ba462/
 Consumers’ Survey on Smart Choices for Home Buyers, NAHB, January 2002.
 “Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl,” by www.cis.org/articles/2003/SprawlPaper.pdf
 “The State of the Nation’s Ecosystems,” Heinz Center, www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems/report.html
 A Gap Analysis of Georgia, USGS, August 2003 Final Report, http://narsal.ecology.uga.edu/gap/report2003.html
 www.nass.usda.gov/census/census02/profiles/ga/cp99013.PDF. The USDA reports data for 1997 as previously published, then reports it reweighted for undercoverage to be more comparable to 2002 Census
 Harvested cropland is defined as land from which crops were harvested or hay was cut, and land in orchards, citrus groves, Christmas trees, vineyards, nurseries, and greenhouses. Acreage defined as “land in farms” consists primarily of agricultural land used for crops, pasture or grazing. It also includes woodland and wasteland not actually under cultivation or used for pasture or grazing, provided it was part of the farm operator’s total operation. Land in farms includes acres in the Conservation Reserve and Wetlands Reserve Programs.
 “A Conservation Program Retrospective: Gains Made And Lessons Learned, 1980-2000,” USDA
 It is important to note the definitions of certain classifications. Farmland is defined as the entire farmstead, including forests, cropland and pasture. Cropland is land that actually grows a crop. Harvested cropland represents the acreage actually harvested.
State of the Forest: A Report on Georgia Forests 2003 www.gfc.state.ga.us/Publications/Educational/StateOfTheForestReport.pdf
 Georgia Forestry Commission
 State of the Forest: A Report on Georgia Forests 2003 www.gfc.state.ga.us/Publications/Educational/StateOfTheForestReport.pdf
 Conservation Incentives: Helping Landowners Help Endangered Species, www.environmentaldefense.org/article.cfm?contentid=135
 Economic Benefits of The Forestry Industry in Georgia 2002, B. William Riall, Ph.D. Research Services Economic Development Institute Georgia Institute of Technology www.gfc.state.ga.us/Publications/Educational/WoodUtilization/FinalReportGFCImpacts2002.pdf
 Economic Benefits of The Forestry Industry in Georgia 2002, B. William Riall, Ph.D. Research Services Economic Development Institute Georgia Institute of Technology www.gfc.state.ga.us/Publications/Educational/WoodUtilization/FinalReportGFCImpacts2002.pdf
 Jefferson Edgens, “Agenda 2000,” Georgia Public Policy Foundation, 2000.
 Presentation to GRTA on Land Use, Benita Dodd
 Metro Atlanta Quality Growth Task Force Consolidated Final Recommendations, www.metroatlantachamber.com/macoc/initiatives/img/quality_recommendationsl.pdf
 Land Trust Alliance, www.lta.org/newsroom/census_charts.htm#types
 Hans Neuhauser, Georgia Land Trust Service Center
 “Conservation Easements for Natural Resource Protection,” Georgia Environmental Policy Institute and Sautee-Nacoochee Community Association, Resource Paper #1, http://outreach.ecology.uga.edu/tools/easements/cons_easements_1st_ed.html#what_is.
 Lancaster Farmland Trust Announces Successful 2003, www.savelancasterfarms.org/savelanc/lib/savelanc/endofyear.pdf
 “Their bond is not their word,” By Helen Colwell Adams Lancaster Sunday News, March 15, 2004, www.lancasteronline.com/articles/5796
 Forest Landowners Tax Council www.fltc.net/deathtaxposition.html
 Tax Policy and Sustainable Forestry in Georgia, www.forestry.uga.edu/warnell/pdf/cfb/reanote9.pdf
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 18, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the affiliation is cited.
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